In rolling out the Building the Education Revolution (BER) fund the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said some mistakes and cost overruns are perfectly acceptable given how important it was at the time, especially given the GFC. Do you think it’s therefore reasonable for the NBN’s budget to go a little over?
SENATOR STEPHEN CONROY (SC): No look we don’t believe that’s an issue. If you look at what we’ve achieved in Tasmania, if you look at the Telstra deal – this has always been something that could be built within budget. If you talk to people in the sector they will always tell you $43 billion was always an outer edge.
So does that mean you would guarantee there will be absolutely no overrun beyond $43 billion?
SC: Well as I said the deal with Telstra has got us well, well short of that. The experts in the industry say it is a $4-6 billion saving. I can’t confirm those figures but a range of experts have suggested the figure of saving and that puts us well under the $43 billion.
So you would personally guarantee that?
SC: Well I’m personally responsible to the Australian public. We put forward a program and will be judged on that and I am ultimately the person who is overseeing the project so I’ll be held responsible. But if you look at the rollout so far, if you look at the way the rollout is designed, if you look at the savings that are potentially going to come from the Telstra deal we’re confident that we can be within budget at the end of the process.
On filtering, the issue is dead in the Senate regardless of who wins thanks to the Opposition, the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon vowing to vote against it. Is there any way you would bring mandatory filtering in without a vote in the Senate?
SC: Genuinely, I don’t believe we can, I don’t think there’s a backdoor way we could do it. I think the only way we could do it is through Parliament. But what you’ve seen is three major ISPs in this country announce they’re going to introduce [content filtering] voluntarily and I call on all of the other ISPs to introduce it. It’s been introduced in many, many Western countries. 70-75 per cent of Australians are going to quickly discover there is no impact on Internet speed. 1/70th of a blink of an eye if you want to be an engineer, but that’s not a noticeable impact for an end-user.
So you would promise not to bring in mandatory filtering via any other method apart from Parliament?
SC: Absolutely, I’m a democrat first and foremost. And I believe this is a debate that needs to be held on the floor. I urge other companies to follow Optus, Primus and Telstra’s lead on this but I believe it’s important for the Parliament to have its say on this. I’m relaxed about that and I’m a democrat at the end of the day.
NBN Co CEO, Mike Quigley, has said he will provide you with a business case and await your approval to release it. Will you do so?
SC: No, I’ve said very clearly we will not be releasing the business case.
SC: Because we didn’t release Telstra’s when it was in public hands, we don’t release Australia Post’s and we’ve got no intention of releasing NBN Co’s.
But can you understand the public angst over the fact that there’s no cost-benefit analysis or business case for this investment?
SC: This is entirely a manufactured, confected debate started by the Liberal Party to try and slow down [the NBN] so they could claim coming into this election that there’d been no connections. They wanted a delay simply for political reasons.
But I’ve spoken to people in the industry that support the NBN while wanting a business case or cost-benefit analysis.
SC: Waste of time, waste of effort, waste of money.
So you say there’s no one who genuinely believes in getting it without an ulterior motive?
SC: Waste of time, waste of effort, waste of money. We’re actually building the NBN as we said we would and as the Australian people elected us to.